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As I ponder the role of our election machinery over the last couple of election cycles, I'm starting to get that same look on my face that people in The Matrix got when they began to suspect something was very wrong.
The idea of computers running amok is not at all a new concept in filmmaking. Remember the passive aggressive computer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? With the trademark line, ''I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that,'' HAL concluded that when his programming conflicted with the desires of the humans around him, the humans got to take a long walk in a short airlock.
After reading a lot of post-election, post-mortem analysis, I've come to the disturbing conclusion that the machinery we have created to help us make some of the most important decisions in our civic lives is letting us down. Whether it was the hanging chads and butterfly ballots of 2000, or the hundreds of little glitches, errors, and outright bizarreness that have been reported from Election Day 2004, I'm beginning to think that carving cuneiform on clay tablets maybe wasn't such a bad idea.
Let me also make clear that I am not one of those wild-eyed conspiracy theorists either. Clearly, there were more than a few problems in many parts of the country, and some suspicious goings-on in some critical battleground states. But the ''liberal media elite'' have successfully applied the Jedi Mind Trick and assured me that there is no reason to question this year's election results. No, there's no news here. Everyone is content.
But I've been around the block enough to know that elections are a messy business. I've been a poll monitor in more than a few Podunk precincts where races were decided by razor-thin margins. I once watched so many recounts in a state delegate race that the incumbent became so exhausted he conceded that the challenger's two-vote margin was good enough.
The lesson I learned from those years in the trenches of electoral politics was simple: The simpler the process, the easier it is to get results that are trustworthy. Ask anybody involved in the mechanics of voting and you'll find a similar refrain.
Speaking at a conference a few months ago, I mentioned that I'd prefer a voting infrastructure that would allow every individual to receive confirmation that their vote had been accurately captured. At any point in the election process, the voter would be able to verify that their vote has been accurately tallied. After my presentation, a dazed audience member asked me if I was crazy.
''As a privacy expert,'' he said, ''surely you can see the risk to a secret ballot if you had that kind of accountability in the voting process!''
Well, actually, knowing what I know about security, cryptography, and how easy it is for the guy at my local 7-Eleven to print out little paper receipts from the Lottery computer, I am comfortable in my belief that a secret ballot and an audit trail are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, the nitwits who have designed today's electronic voting technologies do not appear to have ever consulted the people who run lotteries, much less those responsible for administering free and fair elections.
After studying the Florida election debacle of 2000, who in their right mind concludes that the ''solution'' is to deploy buggy computers that leave no paper trail and are therefore incapable of providing a recount? Yes, yes, the idea is to get the vote tally right the first time so that you don't have to recount. But, come on! This is our democracy here! A fall-back plan is too much to ask for?
We're a pretty advance species, but this is still an era where even rocket scientists can mix up measuring yards and meters, resulting in a multi-million dollar space probe smashing in a Wile-E-Coyote-style pancake on the surface of Mars. Yet, according to Diebold and Sequoia Systems -- two leading manufacturers of electronic voting systems -- and their apologists at hundreds of Boards of Elections who bought both their hype and their flawed machinery, there's no evidence that problems with the voting machines are even a problem.
Case in point: Wellington Fla. Two weeks after the 2002 elections, the town of Wellington had to have a special run-off election for mayor. No offense intended towards the fine people of Wellington, but it's not a very exciting town, and a mayoral run-off is even less so. Yet, if the electronic voting machines are to be believed, 78 people were excited enough about the election to have gone down to the polling place, signed in, inserted their voting card into the machine, not voted, then gone home again. Since those 78 votes had officially ''disappeared'', the mayor's race was decided by only four votes.
According to Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County election official in charge of the voting machines used in Wellington, the machines worked fine and anybody questioning the results is a sore loser. This is the same Theresa LePore who was responsible for the now infamous ''butterfly ballot'', which helped presidential candidate and occasional Nazi apologist Patrick Buchanan win a significant percentage of the elderly Jewish vote in 2000.
LePore has been widely quoted as saying all the problems boil down to dumb voters, not dumb machines. Right. Certainly not dumb elections officials either, I'm sure.
Of course, there are plenty of instances where sore losers may want to challenge close election results in hopes that enough craziness can be uncovered to give them an edge. But when it comes to the mechanics of our democracy, there really shouldn't be that kind of wiggle room. I'm not usually an advocate for unbridled government spending, but when it comes to protecting the sanctity of our voting process, no expense should be spared, no safeguard should be overlooked, and no stupidity should be tolerated.
In a country that is as closely and as bitterly divided as ours, ''close enough'' is not good enough. Never before in the history of America has, not one, but two presidential elections been as susceptible to questions of legitimacy as the first two presidential elections of the 21st century.
If we do not get to the bottom of these questions now, and build a system that can meet skepticism with unwavering accuracy and unquestionable truth, I fear these grievous wounds to our democracy will continue to fester, putrefy, and ultimately poison the body politic.
Why do we tolerate so much ambiguity around voting, our most precious democratic birthright? As an American, I'm embarrassed that I even have to ask that question.
Ray Everett-Church is a principal with ePrivacy Group, a privacy and anti-spam consultancy. He is a founder of CAUCE, an anti-spam advocacy group, and he is co-author of ''Internet Privacy for Dummies.''